Inheriting Froebel’s Gifts

Roman Mars [00:00:01] Vrbo offers whole vacation homes with the space to spend quality time with the people you love. In a Vrbo vacation home, a host doesn’t stay with you. So, when you rent a Vrbo, you get the whole upstairs, the whole downstairs, and the whole nap room–which is any room really if you try hard enough–where you can just be together because the most important thing in the world is quality time with your loved ones. Book your next day on the Vrbo app. With one of the best savings rates in America, banking with Capital One is the easiest decision in the history of decisions–even easier than deciding to listen to another episode of your favorite podcast. And with no fees or minimums on checking and savings accounts, is it even a decision? Get started today. It only takes about five minutes to open an account with Capital One, and there’s no minimum to open and keep your account. That’s a banking reimagined. What’s in your wallet? Terms apply. See Capital One N.A. Member FDIC. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Back in 2018, Kurt Kohlstedt and I went on a tour performing a 99PI story live in cities along the East Coast. And Swan Real and her band provided musical accompaniment. It was so much fun. On stage, we told the audience about a key development that helped shape a generation of modern artists and designers. The stage version was relatively short, but we later expanded the piece into a full episode. We have that story for you today with an additional brand-new related story about how Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John, went on to create one of the most iconic building toy sets in American history. That’s the story that Kurt has been dying to tell for a really long time, so stay tuned for that. But first, here’s Froebel’s Gifts. Once upon a time, there was a boy named Friedrich Froebel. His early life reads like one of those dark, old German fairy tales. His mother died in 1783, right after he was born. And so, Friedrich Froebel had a lonely childhood. He spent his days in the woods, looking at trees, rocks, and flowers, wandering the dense forests of Thuringia in what was then Prussia. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:23] It’s a lush region, sometimes referred to today as “Das Gruene Herz Deutschland’s”–“the green heart of Germany.” 

Roman Mars [00:02:30] That’s Kurt Kohlstedt. He produced the story. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:32] I actually lived near Thuringia when I was a kid, and the forests there are “einfach zauberhaft”–“simply magical.” And I can really see how Froebel became enthralled. 

Norman Brosterman [00:02:43] He looked at rocks. He studied the trees. He worked with a forester for a while; he was an apprentice forester. 

Roman Mars [00:02:49] That’s Norman Brosterman. He’s an author who studied Friedrich Froebel for years. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:54] Brosterman says that Froebel worked for a time as a land surveyor and even served in the military. He was skilled at drafting and geometry and at one point became convinced he should be an architect. 

Norman Brosterman [00:03:04] He did everything you need to become an architect. He took all the right classes. 

Roman Mars [00:03:09] But he didn’t become an architect. The friend convinced him to become an educator instead. And in changing course, Froebel arguably ended up having more influence in the world of architecture and design than any single architect. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:22] And that’s because Friedrich Froebel created kindergarten. 

Norman Brosterman [00:03:27] I believe kindergarten had a tremendous influence on the 20th century. It impacted all parts of society, of course, including art and architecture. 

Roman Mars [00:03:38] If you’ve ever looked at a piece of abstract art or modernist architecture and thought, “My kindergartner could have made that,” well, that may be more true than you realize. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:50] The kindergarten was the product of Froebel’s decades of experience in a wide range of fields, but the foundations of it were built on the principles of Johann Pestalozzi. 

Norman Brosterman [00:04:00] Pestalozzi is considered the father of modern education, which basically means they will learn better if you treat them well rather than hit them with sticks, you know. 

Roman Mars [00:04:11] In addition to the whole not hitting kids with sticks thing, Pestalozzi emphasized physical activity and active learning over rote memorization and repetition. And in particular, he felt that kids should draw.

Tamar Zinguer [00:04:25] Pestalozzi was an early childhood educator who had incorporated pedagogical drawings in the curriculum. 

Roman Mars [00:04:34] That’s author and Cooper Union professor Tamar Zinguer. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:04:38] And basically, he is one of the first who thought that drawing should be part of any school curriculum and should be taught to the very, very young. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:48] Froebel worked for a time at the school based on these principles. And he built on what he learned from Pestalozzi, incorporating his own ideas along the way about how children should be taught. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:04:58] Pestalozzi was especially busy with breaking down the two-dimensional world. But what Froebel did is break down the three-dimensional world. 

Roman Mars [00:05:08] Froebel realized he wanted kids to go beyond just drawing lines on pages. He wanted them to learn through the physical manipulation of objects. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:16] Froebel wanted children to play with toys–objects designed and crafted specifically for educational play. Now, this doesn’t sound that unusual today, but it really was back in the early 1800s. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:05:29] Children used to go to work with their parents. They used to sit by their parent’s side, and they would play with the detritus of the parents’ work. I mean, for example, the candle maker would make wax figurines with the leftover wax. The wooden blocks were only made from the leftover wood from the carpenter. So, it was always from the leftover material. 

Roman Mars [00:05:52] Froebel wanted to build real educational intent into objects of play. But it took him decades to come to this key realization and a lot of time observing children in nature. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:03] He was put in charge of an orphanage for a while, overseeing young children. But he also studied the natural sciences, in particular the emerging discipline of crystallography. 

Norman Brosterman [00:06:12] Well, it turns out that the man who invented kindergarten was a crystal scientist. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:06:18] He worked with the foremost crystallographer of the time in Berlin. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:24] Where most people saw nature in big flowing organic shapes, like hills and plants and animals, Froebel zoomed in to study the straight lines and the geometric forms of crystals. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:06:34] To try to understand how the physical world around him is actually made. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:39] Froebel came to see crystal structures as the building blocks of reality. 

Roman Mars [00:06:44] And this alchemy of crystals, the teaching of Pestalozzi, and a childhood alone in the woods all crystallized into a solid vision. In 1837, when he was 55 years old, Froebel founded the very first kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg, Germany. 

Norman Brosterman [00:07:02] And his intention was to create an educational system for children who could not yet read or write. So, he thought to use geometric forms as a way to teach complex and simple lessons all through play. If you can harness play, you can teach kids a lot of things. 

Roman Mars [00:07:23] The word “kindergarten” cleverly encompassed two different ideas. Kids would play in and learn from nature. But they would also themselves be nurtured and nourished, like plants in a garden. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:36] And the key to it all was a set of deceptively simple looking toys. 

Roman Mars [00:07:42] These were Froebel’s Gifts. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:07:45] They’re called “Gifts” because they were to draw out the gifts of the children. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:50] In German, of course, the phrase “Froebel Gifts” is rolled together into a single word–“Froebelgaben.” 

Roman Mars [00:07:57] Froebel’s Gifts were meant to be given in a particular order–the toys growing more complex over time–teaching different lessons about shape, structure, and perception along the way. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:09] The first of Froebel’s Gifts was a soft knitted ball. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:08:12] The wool ball. And it’s basically the first gift a child could get at the age of six weeks. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:21] Then the child would graduate to another ball, roughly the same size as the first. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:08:26] But this one is not soft. It’s hard–a maple wooden ball. And it has a surface, it is smooth, it can roll. And then they’re given the cube. And the cube is an opposite. It has sides. It has edges. It has sharp edges. It has points. The cube cannot roll. Kids are asked to enumerate the differences between the two. 

Roman Mars [00:08:53] And then they get a cylinder, which combines elements of both the ball and the cube, and it blows their little minds. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:01] Each new gift would get more and more interactive and more complex. Some were designed to be hung from a string and spun in the air. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:09:08] And as they rotate, some very interesting forms are created that are not visible when the form is stationary. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:18] Like a cube, for instance, looks like a cylinder when you spin it around fast enough. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:09:22] He wants the children to start to see that there are some invisible parts contained within the visible. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:30] Next up came objects made up of smaller objects, like a cube that breaks down into a bunch of little cubes. 

Roman Mars [00:09:37] And then the toys would ship from being about perception to being about creation. They would become more versatile, pliant, and constructive. Blocks gave way to paper, string, wire, little sticks and peas that could be connected and stacked into structures. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:52] The objects would get more abstract and creative, leading to the final lesson. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:09:56] The last is really just working freely with clay. 

Roman Mars [00:09:59] Clay being the most malleable of all. It’s rigid, and it’s soft. And there’s a whole range of things a child could build with it. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:07] But even at this final stage, this wasn’t the kind of creative free-for-all we tend to associate with childhood play. Froebel had children sitting at desks–little workstations with grids laid out on them. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:10:18] So it’s not free play. The fact that the table has an underlying grid is very much at the root of the directed play. You follow instructions, and there’s an underlying order. 

Roman Mars [00:10:32] And so in this very structured, very Germanic way, the gifts encourage students to think abstractly and to relate ideas, objects, and symbols. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:42] A set of blocks could be used to teach counting. Then the child could use those same blocks to build a house and then tell stories of a family living in that house. So, they were modeling the world in different ways, all using the same set of objects. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:10:57] The children realized that they can create new shapes and new forms that they create on top of the grid table. 

Roman Mars [00:11:06] These kindergartens weren’t just schools. They were art schools… without all the sex and drugs and clove cigarettes. They were places that taught about shape, form, and color. And when kindergarten graduates went out into the world, the world changed. 

Norman Brosterman [00:11:24] The kind of art that was being made in the 19th century is really different than the kind of art that was made after kids went to kindergarten. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:33] Expressionist, cubist, and surrealist artists, like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, attended early kindergartens. Others, like Piet Mondrian, encountered Froebelian methods as teachers. And when you look at a lot of their work alongside illustrations in kindergarten teacher guides, the resemblance is uncanny. 

Roman Mars [00:11:53] And it wasn’t just artists. Kindergarten influenced designers, too. 

Norman Brosterman [00:11:58] Walter Gropius started the Bauhaus in 1919. Gropius decided to hire a kindergarten teacher as the first hire of this famous school of design. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:10] So the Bauhaus had its adult design students doing geometric exercises, much like those found in kindergartens. 

Roman Mars [00:12:18] And the effects of Froebel’s work on design education rippled out beyond Germany. And some of his most explicit and direct influences can be found among the world’s most famous architects. 

Norman Brosterman [00:12:30] Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect, is the great child of the kindergarten. You can find the kindergarten in everything Wright ever did. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:39] Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867, around the time kindergartens were gaining traction in the United States. And his mom took classes in kindergarten education. Wright never went to architecture school, but he recalls that when he was young, his mother brought home a set of Froebel’s Gifts. 

Roman Mars [00:12:56] Wright said that the moment he was given Froebel’s Gifts, he, quote, “began to be an architect.” He went on to say, “For several years I sat at that little kindergarten table, ruled by lines about four inches apart. But the smooth cardboard triangles and maple wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day.” 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:18] And Wright wasn’t the only one. European modernist Le Corbusier also never went to architecture school, but he did attend Froebelian schools in Switzerland. 

Roman Mars [00:13:28] The gridded geometries and repeated patterns of Le Corbusier’s modernist houses and apartment blocks look like they were drawn on those gridded kindergarten desks. 

Norman Brosterman [00:13:37] Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by some the two most important architects of the 20th century, had exactly the same childhood education. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:46] And then there’s Buckminster Fuller, famous for pioneering geodesic domes made up of triangles. Fuller discovered his greatest engineering insight as a kindergartner, connecting Froebelian peas and sticks. 

Norman Brosterman [00:13:59] If you know Buckminster Fuller, this is the thing he’s most famous for–you know, the domes made out of peas and sticks, basically–nodes and rods. So, he learned that in kindergarten. 

Roman Mars [00:14:14] Obviously, not everyone who attended kindergarten became a Frank Lloyd Wright, a Le Corbusier, or a Bucky. But the abstract lessons of kindergarten tilled and fertilized the ground, so the seeds of their ideas could find purchase in the world. 

Norman Brosterman [00:14:30] Abstraction was accepted fairly quickly in Paris and in Europe. Perhaps because children had already been doing a lot of the same kinds of things for many decades, that was one of the reasons that they were not so shocked when art turned in that direction. 

Roman Mars [00:14:47] So in terms of 20th century art and design, kindergarten was an absolute triumph. But Friedrich Froebel only got to witness the spread of his vision for about a decade before it was cut short. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:00] In the 1850s, the Prussian government was cracking down on liberal thought. And in 1851, they issued the “Kindergartenverbot,” a national ban on kindergartens. And Froebel died the very next year. 

Norman Brosterman [00:15:12] And, you know, you wonder if he died of a broken heart in 1852. Now, of course, who knows? 

Roman Mars [00:15:18] But even though the ban slowed the expansion of kindergartens in Germany, it didn’t stop the idea from spreading elsewhere. Far from it. A lot of free-thinking liberals left Germany, and they brought Froebel’s kindergarten with them. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:15:32] So his disciples–they were so dedicated to the work that they immigrated, many of them to the United States. And basically because of the ban, that’s what led to Froebel’s theories to be known around the world. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:48] And the most dedicated kindergarten evangelists were women. As Tamar Zinguer points out in her book, Architecture in Play, Froebel believed that women should play a leading role in educating children. 

Roman Mars [00:15:59] To be clear, Froebel wasn’t exactly a feminist. He had very traditional ideas about gender roles and believed that it was the role of women to nurture children as nannies and kindergarten teachers. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:11] But regardless of Froebel’s reasoning, teaching kindergarten was a rare opportunity. 

Norman Brosterman [00:16:15] It was one of the only jobs you could get as a young woman. There weren’t many jobs. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:20] And it was women who drew up and translated the lesson books that would be used to teach a generation of young artists and designers. By 1885, there were over 500 kindergartens in America, and they were taught primarily by women. 

Roman Mars [00:16:33] And you might be thinking, “Hey, I went to kindergarten. Why didn’t I grow up with this incredibly dramatic, immaculately planned sequence of toys?” Well, ironically, the passion of some of kindergarten’s biggest proponents is part of the reason why you probably didn’t grow up playing with Froebel’s Gifts. The first kindergarten in the United States started in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1856. But it was German language only. The educator Elizabeth Peabody was inspired by this kindergarten and went on to found the first American English language kindergarten in Boston in 1860. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:09] Peabody wanted to spread the teachings of Froebel to as many children as possible, and so she reached out to Milton Bradley, the famous board game maker. She wanted Bradley to mass produce Froebel’s Gifts so that they could be accessible to everyone. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:17:22] And Milton Bradley, having heard her, was convinced and since that moment turned his entire attention to the manufacture of Froebel blocks and Gifts. 

Roman Mars [00:17:32] But where Peabody saw an educational ideal, Bradley saw a business opportunity. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:38] Bradley began adding a bunch of new toys into the mix. And then other manufacturers got in on the game, too, making all different kinds of stuff and just calling it all “kindergarten toys.” 

Norman Brosterman [00:17:48] He just made up stuff, and he said, “This is kindergarten, this is kindergarten, and this is kindergarten. It’s not necessarily Froebel’s kindergarten.” 

Roman Mars [00:17:54] But the simple abstractions of Froebel’s Gifts had gone commercial. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:00] And within a few years, Elizabeth Peabody went from promoting the manufacture of kindergarten toys to speaking out against it. 

Elizabeth Peabody [00:18:07] The interest of manufacturers and of merchants of the gifts and materials is a snare. It has already corrupted the simplicity of Froebel in Europe and America, for his idea was to use elementary forms exclusively and simple materials. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:22] Even the word “kindergarten” itself became a generic term–a catchall for early childhood education of all different kinds. 

Roman Mars [00:18:30] These days, most kindergartens are a lot different from anything Froebel imagined. And few kids encounter those early gifts in any kind of sequence, if at all. But kids still play with blocks. 

Alexandra Lange [00:18:42] I mean, I really think that it’s because of Froebel or Fröbel–or however it’s correctly pronounced–that children in the Western world play with blocks. But I think also blocks are a constant across a variety of educational systems because there’s so much in them that they can teach. 

Roman Mars [00:19:01] That’s Alexandra Lange, an architecture critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. 

Alexandra Lange [00:19:09] The block is this incredibly malleable toy that can be used in all of these different ways. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:15] Froebel wasn’t the only one to see educational value in blocks. In the early 1900s, Caroline Pratt debuted her unit blocks. 

Alexandra Lange [00:19:23] Unit blocks, which are essentially those classic brick-shaped, pale wood blocks that really, I can’t think of any early childhood classroom I’ve been to that doesn’t have those blocks. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:38] In some ways, all modern toy blocks were influenced by Froebel. Tinker Toys, Lego, K’NEX–they’re all about understanding shape and form and making connections. But they also represent a departure from Froebel’s highly organized and linear approach. 

Alexandra Lange [00:19:52] You know, the Froebel blocks–you were supposed to proceed from 1 to 20 through his exercises. Whereas the unit blocks are much more open-ended; they’re more like we tend to encounter blocks today. 

Roman Mars [00:20:07] These days, we don’t think that blocks need an accompanying gridded desk or a syllabus of objects. Now, blocks are creative tools for children that give them a chance to use their imagination as they build houses and cities and interact with each other. That’s what I see when my boys play with Legos or build castles in Minecraft. 

Alexandra Lange [00:20:26] There isn’t this sense of strict progression. It’s more a sense that these blocks are a tool for children to recreate their own world as best they can. 

Roman Mars [00:20:39] And who knows how many architects, builders, designers, and thinkers all started with these literal building blocks–Froebelian or otherwise–learning creativity through construction. Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John, also went to kindergarten and also became an architect. His most famous creation wasn’t a building, but little kids have been building with it for over 100 years. That story after this. Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. So, I’m back with Kurt Kohlstedt to talk about another designer in Frank Lloyd Wright’s family–his son, John–who was also educated using Froebelian methods. So, we’re going to dive deeper into John’s story. But what is really great about this story is that it culminates into one very particular design that is his claim to fame. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:22:36] Yes, very much so. And it all started with Frank’s mother, Anna, who is John’s grandmother. Frank wrote and talked a lot about how Froebel’s Gifts led him to architecture. But it didn’t hurt that his mom had wanted him to be an architect from the very beginning. So, she brought home Froebel’s Gifts as part of this grand agenda. And sure enough, Frank went into architecture as planned. And eventually he had kids of his own. 

Roman Mars [00:23:01] Yeah. But what I know about Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life is that his family relationship with his kids and stuff was extremely fraught and difficult. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:09] Yeah, there was a lot of heartache in that family or really more accurately, families because he married multiple times. And the care of his children in the midst of all this often fell to the women in his life. And early in his career, while he’s busy practicing architecture in Chicago, his mother, along with his first wife, Catherine, are basically next door, teaching the kids. They effectively ran a kind of neighborhood kindergarten, and in that they used the same toys and methods that Anna had used with Frank. So, in a way, they were shaping the next generation of Wrights, maybe even with this idea still in mind that they could also become architects. 

Roman Mars [00:23:46] Yeah. Well, she did a good job the first time. She created this future star architect, and now she has the kit all ready to go to work on the next one. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:55] Yeah, exactly. And sure enough, John–Wright’s second son–eventually did follow in his father’s footsteps. Like, he went to school and dropped out. And he farmed for a while. And he didn’t always get along with his dad, so they drifted apart. But after John moved out to California, he started drafting. And after that, he started practicing architecture. 

Roman Mars [00:24:14] And so after these years of estrangement, did they come together just, like, because they’re architects, you know? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:20] In a way, yes. Like, this provided a kind of point of reconnection for them, right? And they ended up actually working together. They traveled as a team to Japan for this really big and prestigious commission, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. So, while working on this project, both of the Wrights learned a lot about regional design strategies, like how to build foundations in Japan and these really very brilliant and beautiful interlocking wood joinery techniques. 

Roman Mars [00:24:47] So I’ve seen some of this joinery, but for people who can’t quite picture it, could you describe it? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:51] I would love to be able to, but it’s really hard! But I can try. The basic idea is that instead of glue or nails, you could build structures made entirely out of these wooden pieces that slot and lock into one another. The actual slot work you really should just go online and look up because it’s beautiful, intricate, and very hard to describe. But it all dates back to these ancient Chinese temples that were built this way. And later, Japan essentially adapted the technology to better withstand earthquakes. In between the flexibility of these joints and the flexibility of wood itself as a material, a whole building can essentially sway instead of just shaking and maybe even shaking itself apart during an earthquake. 

Roman Mars [00:25:35] That’s so cool. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:36] And that’s particularly true if they’re set up on a more flexible foundation. 

Roman Mars [00:25:39] Okay. So, Frank and John–they’re in Japan. They’re learning about joinery. They’re learning about foundations. They’re soaking up all this regional architectural wisdom. Did they end up employing some of this for the final, like, Imperial Hotel that they built? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:52] Oh, yeah. Like, for example, they used this floating foundation technique–and the design worked. Shortly after it was built, Tokyo was hit with a big earthquake, but the hotel survived. Still, despite the success of the project, it became a catalyst for another falling out between Frank and John–over salary this time. But that experience of moving away from his father again led John to what became his claim to fame, which was architectural and built on all of his experiences to date. But it wasn’t actually a building at all. John’s most popular and lasting design legacy was a set of modular toy building blocks. In 1916, John Lloyd Wright invented Lincoln Logs. 

Roman Mars [00:26:40] Wow. Lincoln Logs. I am very familiar with Lincoln Logs. For people who maybe can’t picture them–and I pity you if you can’t–they’re primarily made up of these long, rounded, wooden sticks. They have notches in them. They can be stacked like a log cabin. And some of the logs are shorter so that you can, you know, make doors and windows. But it’s really kind of this lovely, elegant way of making a tiny log cabin. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:03] Yeah. And so, John came up with this really cleverly simple design. And pretty quickly they went into production towards the end of World War I, which turned out to be fortuitous timing for Lincoln Logs–if not for anybody else–because during the war, a lot of metal was rerouted to support allied forces. So wood was more readily available, and a lot of metal toys ended up disappearing from the shelves, right?

Roman Mars [00:27:26] Huh. Interesting. But what’s amazing about them is they’re still around today. Do you know how much they evolved from that original design that John did in 1916? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:35] Yeah, I’ve actually looked up sets from different eras–and remarkably, they haven’t changed that much. My dad had a set when he was growing up that was a lot like mine that he got me when I was a kid. And today, my nieces–his grandchildren–still enjoy playing with that set that he gave me. 

Roman Mars [00:27:52] Yeah. It’s kind of like the Froebel’s Gifts that we talked about. You know, like, they’re passed on from generation to generation. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:57] Yeah, well, they’re passed on like, Froebel’s Gifts, but they’re not exactly like Froebel’s Gifts–at least according to Professor Tamar Zinguer, who we talked to earlier about these. She sees Lincoln Logs as being too limited. 

Tamar Zinguer [00:28:11] You can only make a log cabin. And the first one that he invented–you could only make one log cabin. So, I think they’re very, very different from the various systems that play with the Froebel blocks and the open-endedness and also the abstract nature of what you make. So, I think the Lincoln Logs are very opposite. They really make one log cabin, you know? And they’re beautiful as far as a miniature of a log cabin goes. But that’s where it ends. 

Roman Mars [00:28:43] But a beautiful miniature log cabin is a pretty good end result. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:28:47] There are worse places to end up. But, you know, despite whatever you, I, or her might think, they were really popular. And eventually they were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. 

Roman Mars [00:28:58] Yeah. I mean, they deserve a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. And the thing is, they are toys. I mean, Professor Zinguer maybe compared them to educational tools, which are the Froebel’s Gifts–but as toys, they’re, you know, intuitive or easy to learn. And you can make a little log cabin. How could you complain about that? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:29:15] Yeah, it might be a little bit of a stretch, but I would even argue that in a way they are more flexible than they look, too, if you use your imagination. For example, my nieces populate them with toy figures, and they essentially animate them and bring them to life with story. So, I think they’re not necessarily as limiting as they first appear. But even just looking at the toys themselves, they are pretty clever in how they fit together. It’s all pretty well designed. Yeah, you do end up with a nice log cabin even if you don’t do anything else with it. 

Roman Mars [00:29:47] Right. But why log cabins? Like, given John’s exposure to this wood joinery, you know, in Japan, in temples, you’d imagine that he would make it so you could build temples, or something more than just log cabins. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:00] These sets came out in the early 1900s. And that building type–the log cabin–really tapped into a Progressive Era nostalgia for Frontier living. 

Roman Mars [00:30:10] Yeah. Yeah. Living with nature, you know, in a picturesque log cabin, smoke coming out of the chimney, along a, you know, winding river, trying not to die of dysentery. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:18] Exactly. Oregon Trail-style. And so, there was that log cabin association, broadly. And then there was President Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, and who a lot of people, of course, associate with log cabins in general. So, by some accounts, that’s where the Lincoln part of Lincoln Logs comes from. 

Roman Mars [00:30:38] Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:39] But it’s not the only theory because Lincoln was also Frank’s original middle name. 

Roman Mars [00:30:47] Wait. So, Frank Lloyd Wright was actually born Frank Lincoln Wright? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:51] Yeah, he was. And he only later changed it from Lincoln to Lloyd to honor his mother’s family, the Lloyd Joneses. And to this day, different sources out there will tell you very definitively that it was one of these or the other–that either John was inspired by Abe Lincoln, or that it was all a tribute to his dad. 

Roman Mars [00:31:13] Well, I have to be on Team Abe Lincoln in this one because, I mean, come on. It was his dad’s former middle name? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:21] It is a bit of a stretch. And what’s really fascinating to me about it is that you see these statements made unambiguously, right? Like, “No, it was definitely this explanation.” 

Roman Mars [00:31:31] Yeah. I mean, especially because they had their, you know, falling out period and he was a challenging man. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:36] And these were pretty adjacent too, right? Later, John would come around and say really nice things about his father in this book he wrote. But this was right after their kind of break up. So, I don’t think he was exactly feeling in the mood to, you know, design a tribute to his father. And then there’s this other piece of evidence that’s kind of compelling because Abraham Lincoln actually appeared on what I think was the very first design of the box for these toys. So, you know, I agree. That seems like the more logical explanation. 

Roman Mars [00:32:06] I think that settles it as far as someone can say. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:09] I think we might have just figured out the answer. I mean, if anybody disagrees, let us know. But I think we got it. 

Roman Mars [00:32:15] Fair enough. I mean, you’ve got to imagine that it was really difficult for John to grow up in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a very big personality and very full of himself… 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:25] And hard to get along with. 

Roman Mars [00:32:29] And hard to get along with. But I find it really nice that John found his own niche in the end, despite the family difficulties. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:36] Yeah, the whole extended right family is full of so many tragic stories. But in a way, John came out of it and built something kind of incredible. And while a lot of people might not even ever see a Frank Lloyd Wright house in person–let alone go into one–a lot of people will play with Lincoln Logs and pass them down to their kids, who might then pass them down to their kids. So, they’re very different legacies, but they’re both really kind of beautiful ones, too. 

Roman Mars [00:33:04] Well, this is a fascinating addendum to the story. Well, thank you so much, Kurt. I appreciate it. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:08] Yeah. Thanks, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:33:13] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt and Emmet FitzGerald. The original story was edited by Avery Trufelman and mixed by Sharif Youssef. Mix on this episode by Martín Gonzalez. Music by our director of sound, Swan Real. Our executive producer is Delaney Hall. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Christopher Johnson, Chris Berube, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at

Elaine Benes [00:34:13] Oh, is that a–

Roman Mars [00:34:14] Stitcher? 

Jerry Seinfeld [00:34:14] Yes, it is. I got it as a gift. 

Elaine Benes [00:34:16] I just got one of those for– 

Roman Mars [00:34:17] SiriusXM– 

Elaine Benes [00:34:18] for Christmas. I think this is the same one I gave him! He’s a regifter! 

Roman Mars [00:34:21] Yeah, well, if you’re getting him anything for his birthday, I’m a large. 



Producer Kurt Kohlstedt spoke with Norman Brosterman, author of Inventing Kindergarten; Tamar Zinguer, author of Architecture in Play: Intimations of Modernism in Architectural Toys; and Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.

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